Munich: A German court Thursday sentenced football legend Uli Hoeness, president of powerhouse club Bayern Munich, to three and a half years in jail for evading tens of millions in taxes.
The verdict for cheating the German state out of 28.5 million euros (USD 39.5 million) spelled the likely end of the career of the former star player whose trial has captivated football-obsessed Germany.
Hoeness, 62, had admitted to hiding his wealth in secret Swiss bank accounts while obsessively "gambling" on international stock and currency markets for years.
At the end of a four-day trial, judge Rupert Heindl delivered the verdict: "In the name of the people, Mr Ulrich Hoeness is sentenced for seven serious counts of tax evasion to a prison term of three years and six months."
A visibly shaken Hoeness was allowed to walk out of the packed Munich courtroom, with his arrest warrant temporarily suspended after his defence lawyer announced he would lodge an appeal within a week.
"We will naturally challenge the verdict," said his lawyer Hanns Feigen, who had argued Hoeness should escape prison or at least receive a suspended term because he turned himself in to authorities in January last year.
But the judge told Hoeness that the belated tax declaration "was by no means voluntary, as you perhaps are trying to convince yourself".
"It was driven by the fear of being discovered."
The judge pointed out that Hoeness had since 2009 failed to turn himself in and only delivered a hasty and flawed declaration in early 2013 when authorities and journalists were already on his case.
"As you have admitted yourself, you played for time," said the judge.
Prosecutors, who had sought a five-and-a-half-year term, said they had not yet decided whether to also appeal.
Bayern Munich board meets
Interest has been huge in the case, with newspapers giving it front-page treatment and people lining up outside the courtroom from early morning Thursday to get a seat in the visitors gallery.
Tens of thousands shared their views on Twitter, expressing views both for and against the judgement. One of them, former pro footballer Hans Sarpei, tweeted: "A bad verdict for Hoeness, a good one for Germany's many millions of honest tax payers."
Hoeness -- who also co-founded a lucrative sausage business and has been a conservative TV talk-show regular -- had stayed on as president and board chairman of the European club since the scandal broke a year ago.
Bayern Munich made no immediate statement on the verdict but said its presidium and board would now "meet at short notice" and, in a timely manner but not on Thursday, announce possible consequences.
The verdict came after a tough week for Hoeness, who entered the dock Monday and ruefully confessed to large-scale tax fraud worth 18.5 million euros -- almost five times more than prosecutors had assumed.
His vow of full disclosure was however contradicted the next day by a tax officer who testified that Hoeness had cheated the state out of 27.2 million euros.
In its judgement, the court re-calculated the amount again, raising it to 28.5 million euros.
Hoeness had first turned himself in and paid 10 million euros in back taxes on January 17 last year, at a time when journalists had already contacted his Swiss bank and written about the case without naming Hoeness.
In March, police raided his lakeside villa and briefly arrested him, then released him on five million euros' bail, developments which were only reported in the media weeks later.
Hoeness has said he originally wanted to benefit from a tax deal Germany was negotiating with Switzerland, which would have guaranteed immunity for tax dodgers who come clean voluntarily.
However, the amnesty deal was torpedoed by the German centre-left political opposition of the time, which argued that wealthy tax criminals should not be let off the hook so easily.